The duty to reflect, still cogent

In a recent opinion column (“The Duty to Protect, Still Urgent,” New York Times, September 13, 2013), Professor Michael Ignatieff, speaking on behalf of “those of us who have worked hard to promote the concept” of a responsibility to protect, passionately argues in favor of the use of force in Syria and more generally each time “civilians are threatened with mass killing.” Although he admits prevention through conflict resolution and legality via a Security Council vote are preferable, he observes that “when prevention fails, force becomes the last resort,” and “if the United States wants to stop atrocity crimes, it may have to do it alone.”

This stance hardly comes as a surprise from the author of Empire Lite, who ardently pleaded for a military intervention in Iraq “to defend human rights.” Certainly he acknowledges that the idea of humanitarian intervention is “facing a crisis of democratic legitimacy,” as demonstrated in opinion polls and legislative debates, but inspired by the precedents of Kosovo and Libya, he does not despair of seeing the trend being reversed and optimistically concludes, “If the case for action is made honestly, if no one’s consent is manipulated, let’s hope the people say yes. We can’t fight genocide, ethnic cleansing and chemical weapons attacks unless they do.” However, the problem is that the reasoning of the intrepid Canadian scholar rests upon two false premises, which, because they may be shared by many commentators, merit our attention.

Firstly, the argument repeatedly presented by the Obama administration and the interventionists across the usual partisan divide in order to justify the strikes on Syria was not that they would protect civilians from chemical weapons, but that they should punish the dictator for having used them. The objective was not primarily humanitarian but retributive. The protection of the populations was only envisaged as a possible remote consequence of the demonstration of firmness with regard to international law, the use of force being supposed to deter future utilization of the forbidden arms. This difference between protection and punishment is obviously crucial, and yet it is increasingly blurred in contemporary military interventions resorting to the humanitarian argument.

Such retributive logic is problematic both formally and practically. On the one hand, it substitutes warfare for justice, when there exist international tribunals created by the United Nations to prosecute the perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity. One clue to explain the preference of the United States for a military solution is that it is precisely one of the three countries in the world that have refused to become state parties in the International Criminal Court, by which Bashar al-Assad could eventually be judged. The irony is thus that the nation claiming respect for international law is also the one that eludes it. On the other hand, the punitive operation may paradoxically make the situation worse for the populations its promoters claim to protect. In spite of the declaration of General Tommy Frank, who directed the Iraq invasion, that “we don’t do body counts,” it is estimated that several hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties followed the armed intervention to dislodge Saddam Hussein. These figures should serve as a call to prudence before going to war allegedly for the protection of local populations.

Secondly, the ultimate rationale accounting for Barack Obama’s decision to resort to strikes on Syria in spite of his unwillingness to engage in a new conflict did not directly have to do with the moral arguments invoked. One should not mistake justifications for explanations. Numerous political leaders, on both sides of the partisan spectrum, reiterated that what was at stake was the credit of the United States after it had been announced that the potential use of chemical weapons was a red line, the crossing of which would have terrible consequences. It was therefore principally for reasons of international standing and, ultimately, of domestic affairs that the President reluctantly chose to use force, or rather to declare that he would, since he took the precaution to request the endorsement of the Congress.

There is nothing to be surprised about, though. The most recent military intervention for which the humanitarian argument was employed, in Libya, proceeded even more evidently from internal logics. Both French president Nicolas Sarkozy and British prime minister David Cameron had been personally implicated in the spectacular and disconcerting rehabilitation of Muammar Gaddafi, whose secret services were responsible for two terrorist attacks against planes flying to Paris and from London, and in the case of France, revelations had been released by the media shortly before the strikes about the embarrassingly close relations enjoyed by several ministers with various Arab dictators, including the Libyan supreme leader. As Doctors Without Borders affirmed, the announced slaughtering of civilians in Benghazi did not correspond to the situation observed on the ground and merely served to justify a military operation against the suddenly re-disgraced regime, leading Rony Brauman, the former president of the organization, to write that in fact “it was in France and in Europe, as well as in Qatar, that the origins of the war in Libya were to be found.” A final evidence of this political cynicism can be found in the expulsion of the few dozens of Libyan asylum seekers fleeing the war who tried to find refuge in France. They obviously did not benefit from the humanitarian impulse of the French government.

Generous intentions to protect populations and emotional reactions against human rights violations are understandable, but when it comes to military intervention, lucidity is indispensable. Potential consequences are too serious to let oneself be duped by false justifications and deceived by superficial explanations. Surely, as Professor Ignatieff asserts, the case for action must be honest and no consent should be manipulated. But such reasonable principles deserve to be implemented in the first place by those who state them. Public intellectuals have a restricted space and a limited role in the United States: it is therefore all the more important that they exercise both with a sense of their own responsibility.


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About Didier Fassin

Didier Fassin is the James D. Wolfensohn Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study and a director of studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. In 2019, he was elected professor at the Collège de France on an annual chair. Anthropologist, sociologist, and physician, he has conducted research in Senegal, Congo, South Africa, Ecuador, and France, focusing on moral and political issues. He gave the Tanner Lectures at Berkeley on punishment, the Adorno Lectures in Frankfurt on life, and the Eric Wolf Lecture in Vienna on conspiracy theories. Recipient of the Gold Medal in anthropology and the Nomis Distinguished Scientist Award, he recently authored The Will to Punish (Oxford, 2018) and Life: A Critical User’s Manual (Polity, 2018).